Day of the Dead: Remembering the Food They Loved

daddy-and-mother[1]Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated in Mexico after Halloween to honor the spirits of their ancestors.  Family members and friends gather to pray for and remember family and friends who have died.  Families prepare special breads, cakes and candies to honor the day, the familiar skulls and skeleton shapes you may have seen.  They also cook favorite foods of their loved ones and have a feast in honor of them.

This season made me try to remember the favorite foods and meals of the family members I have lost.  Some are easy to remember.  Aunt Eunice, one of Daddy’s sisters, loved the creamed corn that Mother would cook in the summer.  Fresh corn just picked from the garden, creamed and cooked with a little bacon grease in an iron skillet just until it stuck a bit–what’s not to love?  Sometimes Aunt Eunice loved it too much and would actually get sick from eating so much.

Daddy had a lot of different dishes that he loved.  For some reason, today I remembered how he liked buttermilk and cornbread.  He would crumble cornbread fresh from the oven into a large glass, then pour buttermilk over it and eat it with a spoon, drinking the last few bites like a corn mush.  He was also fond of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, as well as slices of country ham fried in the skillet and served with biscuits and red-eye gravy.

Mother loved anything she didn’t have to cook, since she spent much of her time growing vegetables, canning, freezing, making preserves and pickles, and cooking our meals.  Don’t let anyone tell you this homemade stuff was fun to do–it was hard, tedious labor.  The fruits of her labor were delicious, but it was hard work.  So she adored eating out, especially going to the Pic-a-Rib for pit (pork) barbecue after church on Sunday.  She also liked being invited to other people’s houses for dinner.  It was a big treat when Aunt Eunice would do a fish fry and have us over, or when Aunt Mattie Lou (one of Mother’s sisters) would invite us and make her fabulous biscuits.  They were kind of a thorn in Mother’s side, however, because she could never get her biscuits as light.

Uncle Preston (one of Daddy’s brothers) had a special treat he adored.  Back in the day, fresh seafood was nonexistent in our area.  Whenever anyone went to Florida or anywhere on the Gulf Coast, he would ask them to bring back a bucket of oysters in salt water.  With luck, most of the oysters would survive the trip.  Aunt Mary Emma would dip them in cornmeal and deep fry them.

You’ll notice most of this was fried and pretty high in salt and fat.  In recent years this has come to be known as the Southern stroke diet, it is so highly correlated with strokes and heart disease.  At least at our house the ingredients were mostly unprocessed and fresh, although a lot of salt went into preserving that country ham.

Aunt Geneva’s coconut pie (a custard one, not cream), Mother’s chess pie, my grandfather’s favorite country ham, boiled in a lard stand in the back yard–and always biscuits and cornbread, it all brings home back to me.  So on this chilly fall night I think of the ones who are gone, I miss them, and I remember what they loved.

Easter Baskets and Orchids

Ours were not this pretty!
I wonder how many kitchen counters are smudged with Paas Easter egg dye today.  My great-niece and I used to dye them in my sister’s kitchen, covering every surface we could find with newspapers, and we still wound up with dye on our hands, our clothes and most counters.  The kits got fancier as the years went by.  No more cheesy transfers of rabbits and ducks!  The last time Courtney and I dyed them, we had glitter and a sort of tie-dye effect.

When I was small Mother was really into Easter.  I always got an Easter basket with a hollow chocolate rabbit, some jelly beans, and a stuffed animal.  I was a great collector of stuffed animals and was thrilled to get a really lifelike brown rabbit one year.  I petted him as if he were real.

We always went to church.  This involved a new Easter dress, shiny patent leather Mary Janes, and a hat and gloves.  Mother was encased in a dress and hat (and of course her girdle), stockings and heels, and gloves.  Daddy bought us each a corsage to wear.  In good years the corsage was an orchid.  I endured church by concentrating on Easter dinner, which awaited us at home.

Mother usually baked a ham and made candied sweet potatoes and green beans.  These had to be heated when we returned home.  Sometimes we had rolls from the grocery store, which I considered a great treat.

Usually dessert was coconut pie, although one year when we were on the farm Mother made a special, multi-layer coconut cake with little nests of green-dyed coconut holding jelly beans.  The layers were graduated like a traditional wedding cake.  Unfortunately they crumbled at the edges–maybe the recipe was a little too moist?  At any rate, the cake turned into a coconut mountain with nests perilously clinging to its sides.

Maybe it was the return of spring which made Easter so special to her.  Mother tried recipes out of Good Housekeeping which involved cutting cake layers into rabbit body parts.  And we both religiously dyed eggs, even when I came home from college.  We ended up throwing them away because they weren’t safe to eat after sitting out for a couple of days.  But it was worth it to have a bowl full of jewel-toned works of “art” on the table to celebrate resurrection and spring.

Recipe: Aunt Geneva’s Coconut Pie

Aunt Geneva was my mother’s youngest sister.  She was feisty and funny.  In her young days, she pushed the boundaries of behavior in their country community before World War II.  Aunt Geneva smoked, and drank when she got the chance.  She and their brother, Uncle Jesse (known as Fatty because he was so thin), played harmonica and guitar and sang at parties, which was expressly forbidden by their hard-core Baptist church.   Mother told me it was permissible to sing, but not to play instruments at a “play-party.”  They also were not allowed to play cards except for Rook and Old Maid.

Aunt Geneva was the only one of the sisters to learn to drive a car, work outside the home, and marry someone outside of the community.  She continued to work at a plant that manufactured shoe soles while raising two boys.  I was always happy when she came down to visit Aunt Lou because Uncle Fatty would come over with his guitar, and they would play and sing the old songs, as well as “Little Brown Jug,” “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” and “In the Pines.”

Here is the recipe for Aunt Geneva’s coconut pie.  It is not a coconut cream pie, but a dense, sweet, custard pie, and very easy to make.

Geneva’s Coconut Pie

1 cup sugar

1 cup milk

5 tablespoons flour

dash salt

2 or 3 eggs (2 large, or 3 smaller)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 can coconut (or 1 cup flaked coconut)

1/2 stick butter

Mix all ingredients.  Bake in unbaked pie shell at 350 degrees about 45 minutes.